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Jeff Simon: O, What a Lucky Man Irv Weinstein Was

Jeff Simon

Irv Weinstein was sitting in the row behind us.

We were alone in our row, my 10-year old daughter and I.

The three of us, then, were alone watching a press preview of Mel Brooks' "A History of the World Part One" in the long-gone Boulevard Mall Cinema Theater. My daughter and I had gotten there first and Irv had slipped in behind us before the movie began.

Irv, who died this week in California at age 87, had just started reviewing movies on the air on WKBW Channel 7. The self-righteous and the clueless who are ever on patrol thought it was more evidence of the man's megalomania while he sounded off about one more area he had no business dabbling in.

The truth was almost the opposite of that.


My daughter and I were delighted to have the sudden local celebrity company. You never know who's going to be at morning critics' screenings of movies. This seemed especially fortuitous.

So stop for a second and consider the film's audience in that large theater: one 35-year old movie and TV critic, one 10-year old girl and, at the age of 51, a man who already was the best known TV anchorman Western New York would ever have.

Up to that moment, I had been getting Irv Weinstein completely wrong. But then he had been getting me wrong too. We quickly and finally both realized it.

Not surprisingly, Mel Brooks and laughter corrected us both -- with a crucial assist from a 10-year old girl who had been raised to laugh as freely as possible whenever a proper opportunity presented itself.

That last part was the tricky part in Brooks' ruthless "A History of the World Part One." The movie is as "transgressive" as anything Brooks ever put on screen. What is wonderful in it remains permanently memorable to Brooks' fans: the French "Sun King" addressing the audience and saying "It's good to be the king"; Mel as Moses descending Mount Sinai with Three Tablets and telling the assembled Jews that the Lord Jehovah had given him "these 15 (accidentally drops and shatters one tablet) 10! 10 Commandments!"

We laughed very hard until we got to the Inquisition,  one of Brooks' masterpieces on film in the way of "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers." In Mel's Inquisition, he's the dancing, prancing  Torquemada singing of the black comic glories of religious persecution in a production number which ultimately turns into an Esther Williams-style swimming pool extravaganza populated by mermaids who had just jettisoned their nun's habits.

And there were the three of us, virtually howling with one collective scream of hilarity at what was onscreen. The legendary anchorman -- the senior member of our out-of-control trio -- was the freest and most joyous celebrant of all at Brooks' transgression.

My revelatory moment came a short time later before a screening at the Amherst Theatre, when we had time to talk and the two of us, separately, discovered to our shock how much we personally liked each other after all.

Never mind all those rude things I had written about Channel 7's Eyewitness News format subsisting on alliterations and police blotter deeds. What I hadn't known before was one crucial bit of Irv biography: that Irv Weinstein, as a young man, had once gone to Hollywood long before his anchorman life, in the hope of becoming the next John Garfield in the movies.

Irv came to anchoring late. Before all that, he was pure aspirant showbiz. What I had never understood about him is how very much he loved being Irv Weinstein. It was the role of a lifetime. He knew how much Buffalo audiences loved him and he loved them back. And all of us were allowed to soak up the nightly love-fest.

It was, first to last, a joyous thing to see. Not always, maybe, but often enough.

But it was only a fraction of the man. Once the two of us figured out how much we enjoyed talking at length to each other -- about movies, show business, television, local journalism and politics -- we discovered how much personal affection we developed. I truly loved every minute spent watching movies with him -- and having lunch those few times when he invited me.

In 1987, before the opening of Gabriel Axel's magnificent film "Babette's Feast," the Dipson Theaters arranged for the meal in the film to be sampled at Oliver's Restaurant by those reviewing it. The Weinsteins -- Irv and wife Elaine -- were invited, as was I.

It was my spectacular luck to sit next to the least known member of the family, Elaine. It was there I discovered that she was the secret of Irv's success. Elaine Weinstein, a brilliant, generous-spirited, perfectly grounded woman was able to keep one of Buffalo's most glorious and, indeed, awesome egos completely in check with a lifetime of love and completely uncommon common sense.

It was an OMG moment for me after a lifetime of Irv-watching. Forever after that, I truly felt that I "got" Irv Weinstein. With Elaine as the crucial "silent" partner -- the COO of Irv Weinstein Inc. -- he was virtually incapable of putting a foot wrong. In the "city of no illusions," he was permanently insulated from malignant megalomania and stupidity by one of the smartest and wisest celebrity wives I have ever encountered.

My favorite moment after his 1998 retirement came during the early aughts when I was among the few to receive Irv's constant barrage of emails linking to one subject or another -- show business, news, health, whatever captured his electrically charged mind that morning.

My favorite Irv email was the least likely, a long catalogue reprint showing nothing but vintage pictures of radio studio microphones that could be purchased in the '40s and '50s. It was the warmest, most loving email he could possibly have sent me.

Nothing in my history could possibly have connected to his orgy of nostalgia for the microphones of his local radio beginnings. But somehow, he had come to accept me so completely as a member of his professional and historical family that he thought I too would swell with love and pride and warm memories of radio looking at page after page of cold steel radio mics.

I didn't, of course. Because I couldn't. But I thanked my lucky stars that I had gotten close enough to an utterly wonderful man that he actually thought I could. I understood what he was trying to share and felt honored. I still do.

My experience with Irv is just a sample of the feelings of so many Western New Yorkers. We were incomparably lucky to know him.

But he was no fool. He also was lucky to have us.

We "got" him. Completely.


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